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Sweeney’s Booknotes: Edwards on Justification

Jonathan EdwardsMichael McClenahan, Jonathan Edwards and Justification by Faith (Farnham, U.K.: Ashgate, 2012).

Reformed pastor Michael McClenahan is Minister of Lislooney and Knappagh Presbyterian Churches, which are both in Northern Ireland. He offers here an updated version of his dissertation at Oxford University (defended in 2006).

Focusing largely on Edwards’ sermon, Justification by Faith Alone (preached in 1734, published in 1738), McClenahan contends that Edwards was not quasi-Catholic, as many have suggested, but defended a traditionally Calvinist view of justification against the Arminian views of Archbishop Tillotson. McClenahan seeks to “demonstrate that this misreading of Edwards [as nearly Catholic on justification] is based on a failure to appreciate the polemical nature of Edwards’ Justification by Faith Alone. It is ironic that many scholars unwittingly describe Tillotson’s view yet ascribe it to Edwards. I argue that the neglect of the historical and theological context of Edwards’ work has resulted in an inability to discern the precise nature of his doctrine” (p. 18).

McClenahan’s “basic conclusion” is “that Edwards’ discourse on justification follows in broad continuity with previous Reformed explanations of the doctrine.” He admits to “novel elements” in Edwards’ explanations (“for example, the use of the distinction between moral and natural fitness”), but insists that “these aspects do not constitute any significant realignment of thought” (p. 193).

Edwards had more in mind when speaking of justification by faith than a refutation of Tillotson, whom he did not engage frequently. And Edwards wrote much more on justification than is treated in the pages of this book, which is focused rather narrowly. Nonetheless, McClenahan’s thesis is largely correct: Edwards did seek to defend a Reformed view of justification. Though at times he sounds Catholic to people raised in modern churches, he was an anti-Catholic man with firm, though never overly simplified, Protestant convictions.

This book comports well with Jonathan Edwards and Justification, edited by another Reformed pastor, Josh Moody, and reviewed in an earlier post.

Sweeney’s Booknotes: Jonathan Edwards and Justification

Josh Moody, ed., Jonathan Edwards and Justification (Wheaton: Crossway, 2012).

Caveat emptor. I contributed one of only five chapters to this volume and am biased in its favor.

As I note in my own chapter, Edwards’ doctrine of justification has attracted more attention since Vatican II and the trend toward a “new perspective on Paul” than ever before in the history of Edwards scholarship. During the two hundred years from Edwards’ death (1758) to the election of Pope John XXIII (1958), only five scholars devoted much attention to this doctrine. Only two of these examined it with critical acumen. Since the early 1960s, though, a host of people have studied it, engaging in what has become one of the most important interpretive conversations in the field.

As Josh Moody clarifies in the volume’s introduction, this book is aimed not only at laying out Edwards’ doctrine of justification, but at assessing the current state of the conversation on its nature and historical significance, particularly with respect to the hotly contested question whether its shape is more catholic than it is uniquely protestant.

Moody establishes an explicitly Christian tone for the volume, setting up the essays that follow with a summary of Edwards’ doctrine of justification itself, a comparison of the doctrine with older, classically protestant views, and an argument that Edwards was traditionally protestant, despite contemporary claims to the contrary.

The rest of the book’s contributors are in basic agreement with Moody regarding Edwards’ protestantism. Kyle Strobel assesses the place of Edwards’ justification doctrine in relation to his general view of redemption. He is interested in the relationships between Edwards’ doctrines of redemption, imputation, and spiritual regeneration. His main argument is that Edwards’ doctrine of justification and theology of redemption stem ultimately from his doctrine of God, especially from his doctrine of the economic Trinity. Relatedly, “Edwards’s development of soteriological loci occurs under his analysis of the person and work of Christ and the nature and gift of the Spirit” (p. 45).

Rhys Bezzant details the relationship between Edwards’ justification doctrine and his social vision for the neighborhoods he served. He shows that Edwards thought salvation was intended to effect a transformation of life and thought. “The gospel that Edwards preached,” he says, “was designed both to revive and to reform” (p. 73).

Sam Logan offers an essay on Edwards’ view of the relation between the justification of sinners and evangelical obedience. Edwards eschewed works righteousness, as Logan makes clear, but insisted that salvation makes a difference in daily life. “Being in Christ produces evangelical obedience because, as Edwards and many others have taught, the law of God is nothing more or less than the objectification of the very nature of God. . . . when one is in Christ, one lives out who he is, and that is evangelical obedience” (p. 125).

My own essay fills out our understanding of Edwards’ doctrine by examining its expression in his exegetical writings. I show that the most controversial parts of his justification doctrine make the best sense in light of his pastoral and biblical priorities.

This book is aimed mainly at Christians, but is also the best handbook now available on Edwards’ view of the nature of justification before God.

–By Douglas Sweeney, Director of the JEC at TEDS

Dissertation Notes: “Jonathan Edwards on Justification”

Hyun-Jin Cho, “Jonathan Edwards on Justification: Reformed Development of the Doctrine in Eighteenth-Century New England” (PhD diss., Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, 2010).

Was Jonathan Edwards actually a closet Roman Catholic? Some Edwards scholars have claimed that his doctrine of justification falls short of classic Reformed formulations. They pick up on his use of the terms “infusion” and “fitness,” common in medieval and Tridentine Catholic theology, and they point to his dispositional ontology to argue that Edwards aligns more closely with a Roman Catholic than a Protestant view of justification.

In response, Hyun-Jin Cho, a Fellow of the JEC at TEDS, argues in his dissertation that this claim does not do justice to Edwards’ theology in his context. Cho outlines the broad development of the doctrine of justification from Augustine to Edwards and sets Edwards’ discussion of justification in the historical context of the Enlightenment, “Arminianism,” and Antinomianism, which all raised challenges to the Reformed understanding of justification. Cho then treads carefully through the details of Edwards’ own doctrine of justification and closes by parsing out the doctrinal nuances between Roman Catholics, early reformers, scholastics, Puritans, and Edwards himself.

It’s hard to walk away from Cho’s dissertation without realizing that Edwards was far more indebted to Protestant scholastics such as Francis Turretin and Peter Van Mastricht than to Roman Catholic thinkers. In fact, while earlier reformers rejected the term “infusion” in the polemics with the Council of Trent, later Reformed scholastics found the term useful in a modified sense against so-called “Arminian” doctrines. Reformed scholastics—and Edwards—differentiated themselves from Catholics by distinguishing between justification and sanctification and by denying any human merit in justification. To call Edwards’ doctrine of justification Catholic, Cho argues, is to misunderstand the sources he was reading and to misconstrue the theological terms as he used them.

Cho does show that Edwards developed the Reformed doctrine of justification in some ways. He gave the Holy Spirit a greater role in justification, which linked sanctification and justification more tightly together. He also conveyed a more organic unity to the Trinity’s redemptive work in regeneration, justification, sanctification, and glorification. Still, a close reading of Edwards shows his commitment to the Protestant conviction that humans contribute nothing to justification; he rather attributes justification to the work of all three members of the Trinity.

What makes Cho’s dissertation especially helpful is his detailed comparison of varying treatments of justification, which highlights the theological impact of each iota of difference. Cho also treats Edwards’ understanding of justification by bringing his more well-known doctrines of original sin, dispositional ontology, and the Holy Spirit to bear on the doctrine of justification and by setting Edwards—the Calvinist who called the pope “antichrist”—carefully in his theological, historical, and polemical context. That particular synthesis constitutes Cho’s unique, and helpful, contribution.

– By David Barshinger, Senior Fellow of the JEC at TEDS